“An inspiring tale of redemption and courage, set in an all-too-plausible future in space. Well done!” – Julie Czerneda, author of The Clan Chronicles
Published by Bundoran Press
Cover art by Dan O’Driscoll.
A fast-paced space opera about first contact – with a difference. When Art Stoddard, civilian information officer of the generation ship Mayflower II, is kidnapped by a secret military organization determined to overthrow the power of Captain and crew, he becomes embroiled in a conflict that tests everything he thought he knew. Now, he is forced to choose between preserving social order and restoring the people’s right to know. But what if knowledge is the most dangerous thing of all?
Right to Know
By Edward Willett
Rick’s Place was crowded when Art stepped through the door, Treena on his arm. But then, everything was crowded in Habitat Twenty: the apartments stacked from deck to skyplate, the four levels of tubewalks, and even the central park, consisting of little more than a few hundred square metres of scraggly grass and a fountain that hadn’t worked in fifteen years. The only thing the habitat had going for it was the beer in Rick’s Place—best beer on the ship, Art was convinced—and Treena, the busty blonde who’d contacted him earlier that day out of the blue with the provocative news that her name had come up in the Conception Draft, that his name was on the list of approved fathers, and that she much preferred to fulfill her reproductive duties through old-fashioned rather than technological means.
Art was more than willing, and had arranged to meet her. Now they threaded their way through the crowd, nobody paying them any attention. It was another reason he liked Rick’s Place. He’d been going there often enough he was seen as a regular. Nobody cared that every evening his face was plastered on screens all over the ship, reading the shipday’s news. In the mid-Habs and higher there were fancier places where he would have been treated as a celebrity. That could be nice, but sometimes he just wanted to be an ordinary guy interested in ordinary things…like beer.
A table had just opened up in the corner; he steered Treena to it. “I’ll get us some drinks,” he said to her, and she smiled. Her nose crinkled adorably and her chest heaved in an interesting fashion, and although her blue eyes were rather vacant, they were certainly pretty. Art smiled back and turned to pick his way to the bar.
“Rick”—Art had never known if that was his real name or not—had just put a pint of red ale and a fizzy pink cocktail on the bar when Art’s arm was suddenly seized in an iron-like grip and twisted behind him. He gasped in pain as he was frog-marched through the crowd, which scattered in front of him. His unseen assailant smashed him up against the faux-wood wall, right between the dartboards, and growled in his ear, “You’ve got your nerve coming here.”
The words were carried on a puff of hot breath smelling of fresh beer and old garlic. “Who—” Art began, but got no farther before he was spun around and squeezed up against the wall by a massive arm across his chest, so tightly he could hardly breathe. He blinked at the face just inches from his own. “Pete?” he wheezed.
His best friend from childhood glowered at him. “This is a place for Shipborn, Stoddard. Shipborn.”
Art managed to get a breath despite the pressure on his lungs. Beyond Peter’s florid face he saw two beefy guys in nondescript clothes, arms folded, grinning: friends of Peter’s, obviously. The other patrons of Rick’s Place watched with interest, but no apparent inclination to rescue him. The owner looked concerned, though. “You damage anything, you’ll pay for it,” he growled at Peter.
Art flicked his eyes back to Peter. “What are you talking about?” he wheezed. “I am Shipborn. You know that. You—” He had to stop as the pressure on his chest increased.
“You’re a boot-licking jelly-spined mouthpiece for the bloody Council and Crew, that’s what you are!” Peter bellowed. “And you aren’t welcome here!”
“Look, Peter, why don’t we sit down—I’ll buy you a drink—”
“I don’t drink with Council or Crew!” But Peter let go of him and stepped back. “Come on, Stoddard, we’ve put this off long enough. Let’s settle it!”
Art took a couple of deep breaths and pressed the heel of his hand into his aching chest. “Settle what?” he said, honestly bewildered. He’d come in here, minding his own business, looking for a little relaxation after a hard day spent sweltering in the rain forest in Hab Six trying to get some decent video of dead fish, and now…
Over Pete’s shoulder he saw Treena downing a drink he certainly hadn’t bought for her, and talking to a tall young man in tight blue coveralls. He wore the gold star of an approved reproductive partner, just like Art. Art groaned and turned his attention back to his erstwhile friend. “Pete, what’s this all about?”
“I see you,” Pete said. “Every night. You in your nice suit. You in your fancy studio. Living up in Habitat Three. We played together as kids. I was every bit as good as you at everything. Better at most things. And you’re up there,” he pointed toward the ceiling, “and I’m down here.” He waved his hand vaguely to encompass the bar and presumably the entire habitat. “And you know what they’ve got me doing? Scrubbing hydro tanks. Robot work.” His fists clenched.
Art flushed, and fought to keep his temper. He didn’t want a fight—not with anyone, but especially not with Peter. Peter was—had been—his best friend. As kids they’d once promised they’d be friends all their lives. “Look, Peter, you’re right, it’s not fair. I just got lucky, that’s all. It could just as easily have been the other way around.” If your father were on the Council and could pull the strings necessary to get you a job like mine, he thought, instead of a crazy drunk who managed the impossible task of himself killed by a maintenance robot. And speaking of crazy drunks… “Let me buy you a drink and we’ll—”
“I don’t want a drink! You think you can buy anything, don’t you? You think you’ve got it all—fancy clothes, money—lots of money—and girls. Lots of girls. You always got a girl, Art.” He glanced at Treena. She wasn’t paying any attention to them; she only had eyes for the tall young man, who had now folded himself into the seat Art should have already been occupying, beer in hand.
Art felt a surge of anger at the sight. This has gone on long enough. He didn’t try to keep the contempt out of his voice. “Would you like me to find you a girl, Pete? Is that what you need?”
Peter’s face darkened even more. “I don’t need anything from you, Mister Stoddard,” he said as distinctly as alcohol would let him. “Except the pleasure of smashing your pretty face in. We’ll see how much good you are to the Council after—”
“So go ahead! Smash my face in. And then what happens to you? It won’t be hydro tanks any more. It will be sewage tanks. Or prison.”
“You can’t scare me!” But Peter’s eyes narrowed, and behind him, his two friends exchanged worried looks.
“I am the Information Dissemination Specialist: Civilian,” Art said coldly. “You are a…what? Manual Laborer, Fourth Class? A ‘make-work jerk’?” It was a term of contempt, and Art made sure his voice dripped with it. “Just which do you think is of more importance to the workings of the ship, old friend?”
“You little shit!” Peter lunged at him, but his friends grabbed his arms and held him back.
“He’s not worth it, Pete,” one said urgently. “You heard him. You touch him and he’ll have the ‘keeps on you. He’s practically Crew!”
Art had not moved and he said nothing, but his anger drained away and his stomach churned as he looked at Peter’s rage-twisted face; then Peter shoved his companions away, straightened and turned his back contemptuously on Art. Art glanced around the room. No one would meet his eyes; even Rick turned away and busied himself with mixing drinks. The juke started cranking out the latest syrupy synthotune.
Art went back to the long faux-oak bar, where the drinks he’d bought still waited. Peter’s right, he thought sickly. I shouldn’t come here anymore. He drank deeply of his ale, the hand holding the glass trembling slightly. It was time to find some other place to drink—someplace where he was still wanted. “Here’s looking at you, kid,” he muttered, and drained his glass. Then he tossed back the pink cocktail, made a face at its burning sweetness, and turned to leave.
A cool touch on his hand stopped him. He looked back and down into Treena’s blue eyes. “Not going without me, I hope?” she murmured.
He blinked, surprised. “I thought—” he looked over her shoulder. “That tall guy—”
“Not my type,” Treena said.
“He bought you a drink.”
She shrugged. “I never turn down a free drink. Come on, let’s get out of here.”
Art laughed, suddenly feeling better. “With pleasure.” The cost of the drinks had been automatically deducted from his account the moment he’d ordered them; he left the empty glasses on the bar, took Treena’s arm and started toward the door…only to find it blocked by a tall man wearing a disheveled and suspiciously stained suit, his shock of white hair glowing in the light. He’d stumbled to his feet from a booth as they approached, and now stood between them and their escape.
“Yer a ghoul…good…good lad,” the man wheezed. “Standing up for selsh…self.”
Art took a deep breath, then wished he hadn’t as the reek of whiskey and onions filled his nose. He swallowed to keep from gagging and said, “Councilor Woods. You shouldn’t be here. Where are your bodyguards?”
Woods drew himself up. “Don’t need ’em. People love me. Fav’rite Councilor. Four years running. Puke a pup…I mean, look it up.” He poked a finger into Art’s chest, and then weaved away toward the bar.
Art sighed, shook his head, and led Treena outside.
They emerged into a narrow roadway with four-story stacks of apartments on either side, light gleaming in hundreds of windows, rising up halfway to the skyplate, itself dark except for the pinpricks of light intended to simulate the stars as seen from Earth. Never having seen Earth—never having set foot on any planet—Art didn’t have a clue if the effect was accurate or not. His father and the others of the Originals said it was, and he supposed they would know. Unlike them, though, he never thought of those lights as stars. They were nothing but low-energy/high-output LEDs, and unless he missed his guess, about half of the ones that should have been shining up there were burned out.
Something skittered past them down the pale ceramic pavement, a silvery globe with four jointed spider-legs and four manipulator arms: one of the ubiquitous maintenance robots. Art had once been told that on a ship the size of the Mayflower II a part failed every three seconds. A dozen micro-factories utilizing 3D printing technology recycled old parts and churned out new ones, and a thousand robots scurried around the habitats fixing and replacing, and yet…
And yet, the LED constellations overhead had dozens of blank spots, the fish were dying in the tropical rainforest habitat, and every day other stories of breakdowns and failures crossed Art’s desk…
Crossed his desk, and fell into the black hole of silence imposed by the Council and Crew on any news of problems with ship maintenance.
Art sighed. He looked up at the skyplate again and tried to imagine what it must be like to walk the surface of a planet with nothing between him and space but a few insubstantial kilometres of gases. He’d watched hundreds of ancient entertainments, “films” and TV shows and holographic soap operas, and though to him the Mayflower II had always been home and world combined, sometimes he longed for the wonders of those long-gone days, for mountains and oceans and skyscrapers and a vast blue sky of air —
—for room; room enough to escape the constant press of people.
People like Peter. “Bastard,” he muttered.
“Was he really a friend of yours?” Treena asked. In the cool darkness she seemed much younger than she had in the overheated bar.
Art put his arm around her and she snuggled close. “He was my best friend, once. But we—drifted apart.” He started walking, away from Rick’s Place, from Peter, and from memories.
“Because he’s a ‘make-work jerk’ and you’re—”
“I shouldn’t have said that,” Art muttered.
“But that’s why, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but I still shouldn’t have said it.”
“I pulled rank on him.” He shook his head. “That’s a Council trick. A Crew trick.”
“That’s all right,” Treena said brightly. “You practically are Crew.”
He almost hit her. Instead he stopped, there on the ceramic street, until he could say, gently, “I’m not. I’m Shipborn. Like him. Like you.”
“Don’t talk.” Art roughly pulled her close. “Haven’t we got better things to do than talk?”
She nodded and smiled, back on familiar ground. “Where—”
As if there were any choice. He could no more take her to his home in Habitat Three then he could have fixed the matter-antimatter reactor that powered the ship. “Your place,” he said, and let her lead him away into the artificial night.
Night still filled Habitat Three when the insistent beeping of Art’s alarm dragged him from the depths of sleep. “Shit,” he said. The alarm immediately cut off, responding to one of several swear words he’d programmed the system to recognize as meaning he was awake. Simultaneously the lights came on, stabbing a lance of pain into his fogged brain.
He’d only been in his own bed for a couple of hours, but it was 0500 and he had to be on the air at 0630. Knowing if he closed his eyes he’d be asleep again in an instant, he swung his legs over the side of the mattress, lurched to his feet and stumbled into the bathroom.
The pulsing water of the shower brought him to some semblance of full wakefulness, but as he stepped out of the stall and grabbed a towel he glanced at his image in the full-length mirror, expecting to see bloodshot, puffy eyes looking back at him.
Instead he saw what he always saw—a 32-year-old man with features some people thought were too good-looking, a carefully nurtured tan that covered every inch of his lean, muscular body, straight, chestnut-brown hair now spiky with moisture, and blue eyes that met his quizzically. “You can’t go on like this,” he told his reflection. “You’ll never live to a ripe old age if you don’t get your rest.”
He snorted and turned toward the smaller shaving mirror over the sink. Old age on the Mayflower II would be very ripe. Overripe, in fact. Stinking, rotting ripe. “Canned fruits, that’s what we are,” he muttered as he ran the shaver over his chin. “The universe is a cellar and we’re all preserves.”
Pleased with his metaphor, he grinned at his clean-shaven face, then went back into the bedroom and dressed in what he thought of as his uniform: a dark-blue jacket, a light-blue shirt, a nondescript red tie, all of a style no one else on the ship wore—anymore than he did, when he wasn’t on duty. Then as quietly as possible he slipped out, taking care not to wake his parents.
If he’d lived on his own, of course, he wouldn’t have had to worry about it…but his father, the esteemed—by some—Councilor Randall P. Stoddard, had made it clear that any application he might make for housing elsewhere would not be approved. He wanted his son close at hand. And since any housing Art might have been able to get even without his father’s interference would most likely have been Habitat Six or Seven at best, Art had never tried too hard to change the elder Stoddard’s mind.
Their house, in Neighbourhood One, was only a short walk from the nearest intraship transport access station. The stacked, teeming warrens of the higher-numbered Habs weren’t for the residents of Habitat Three. Here, trees of uniform height and shape bordered the ubiquitous cream-coloured ceramic pavement; bicycles, identical except for colour, stood on kickstands beside the walk to each square house. Despite white paint and blue, carved shutters and lawn sculptures and variations in landscaping, their basic sameness could not be disguised.
Here and there no disguise had even been attempted, and a house bore the unmistakable stamp of mass manufacture proudly, like a sign of distinction. These were the homes of the Councilors, Earthborn every one of them, appointed by the government on Earth before the ship launched and in power ever since…and Art, son of a Councilor, had lived in one of them his entire life.
He strode down the walk and turned right, breathing in the sweet scents of flower and other growing things. In Habitat Three, every house had its own manicured plot of oxygenating greenery, potted trees and banks of flowers and even the occasional vegetable crèche. Art’s route also took him past the edge of the central park, a manufactured bit of “wilderness” impenetrably dark this early in the morning, when even the “stars” were switched off and the only light came from the widely spaced lightposts, but he didn’t spare the shadows a second glance. There was nothing to fear in the dark in the Mayflower II’s controlled environment.
Even so, he suppressed a start as a maintenance robot burst out of the darkness and crossed the street not five metres ahead of him, scuttling over the pale ceramic surface like a giant black spider. He snorted at his own foolishness and walked on.
His footsteps echoed back to him from a side street, so that it sounded for a moment as if he were being followed—but he knew he wasn’t. Down in the mid-Habs they sometimes followed him, or crowded him—he was as much of a celebrity as the Mayflower II had, after all—but no one ever followed him in Habitat Three, which, along with the identical Habitat Four, was home to Councilors and high-level bureaucrats. They knew him for what he was: someone highly visible and completely powerless.
He thought back to the encounter with Pete, Treena’s later efforts to make him forget what had happened notwithstanding. Of course Pete was jealous of him. Who could blame him? They’d played together as kids, back when Pete had lived in Habitat Three as well, before his family’s fall from grace. It wasn’t Pete’s fault his dad, senior administrator of the Population Management Authority, had gone crazy and started making wild accusations against the Prime Councilor…not to mention the Captain. But it sure as hell wasn’t Art’s fault, either. And Pete hadn’t been a kid anymore by then. He could have stepped away from his father, kept his own nose clean. No way he’d have stayed in Habitat Three or Four, but he might have hung on in the mid-Habs. Instead he’d defended his father to the bitter end, and after the freak accident involving the maintenance robot had made some pretty wild accusations himself about his father being murdered. He’s lucky he’s even doing make-work, Art thought. In the early years the Captain might have spaced him.
Now he saw Art doing all right for himself, and wondered why it couldn’t be him. Especially…
Art sighed. Especially since he’d almost screwed up as badly as Pete.
He remembered the night. He could hardly forget it, what with his father reminding him of it every couple of weeks. He’d been nineteen, Pete a year older. They’d been out drinking in the mid-Habs. Pete had been going on and on about how his father’s death hadn’t been an accident, how someone had altered the maintenance robot’s programming, made it kill him. Everyone knew the robots were incapable of harming anyone. But somehow it had started to make sense, especially after the fifth beer and second—or was it the third?—whiskey. They’d staggered out of the bar in search of a maintenance robot. Even drunk as they were it hadn’t been hard: there was always one around, like the one that had just startled Art. They’d cornered it and beaten it to pieces with a chair they’d stolen from the bar. The robot had finally quit twitching just as the Peacekeepers arrived. The ‘keeps had hauled them up to Administration, processed them, locked them up in the brig. It had been the last time Art had seen Pete until the night before in Rick’s Place, and Art knew he could just as easily have ended up a make-work jerk, too, except…
…except his father was a Councilor. Art had only been in the cell for an hour before his father had shown up, tight-lipped and furious, and hauled him out of there. An endless lecture later, Art had been on probation, kept on such a short leash by his father he hadn’t even seen the mid-Habs for another five years. By that time his father had landed him his current position as Information Dissemination Specialist.
He tried to shake off his black mood. So who cared what the other Shipborn thought? They were wrong. He was more like them than they knew. He didn’t like the way the Council ruled, deciding where people would live, what jobs they would do, what they could hear and see and read, forcing women to have children, forcing those children into whatever roles they saw fit. But what could he do about it? The ‘keeps didn’t wait for trouble before arresting troublemakers, and what good would getting arrested do anyone?
All he was doing was making the best of things—and sometimes, he had to admit, things were pretty good. After all, however some of the Shipborn felt about him, there were plenty of others to whom his closeness to the Council and Crew didn’t seem to matter—including a lot of girls. Like Treena.
A short distance ahead a small red-and-white sign identified the intraship transport access node. The capsule inside would whisk him up the habitat’s “boom” (properly known as the Service and Transit Conduit) to the Core, and from there to Habitat Two, the Administration Hab. Habitat One, of course, was Crew Country: home not only to the crew, but to the ship’s bridge, CentComp, and associated control systems, tucked away on a restricted-access deck above the Hab’s skyplate.
There were no habitats further “up” the Core: forward of Habitats One to Four there was only the massive sphere of the Forward Service and Propulsion Module, a place where only maintenance robots ventured except in extraordinary circumstances. It housed the projectors for the powerful electromagnetic fields that had kept the Mayflower II—at least so far—from a catastrophic encounter with some anonymous bit of space matter while moving at relativistic speed, and itself nestled in behind the huge umbrella-shaped Forward Shield, a solid chunk of reshaped asteroid that was the last defense against such collisions.
Currently the Forward Module also housed the matter-antimatter reactor and the propulsion system, for the Mayflower II was decelerating. For the first fifteen years of the ship’s journey the reactor and the engines had resided in the Aft Module, accelerating the giant vessel at a constant 0.3 g to almost the speed of light. Now they were just as enthusiastically slowing its journey, though what lay at the end of their long downward slide no one knew…or at least no one was talking about.
Supposedly there was a good chance of finding a habitable planet in the system at which they had been aimed so many years ago. Art’s parents certainly believed it. Art had his doubts.
Art stepped inside the waiting capsule, sat on its worn vinyl seat of faded blue, patched in one spot with a bit of duct-tape—presumably the work of an actual human being, not a spectacularly lazy maintenance robot—and said, “Administration Hab.”
He closed his eyes as a line of light swiftly swept over his features, CentComp ensuring he had access to the requested destination, matching his face to the voiceprint it had already taken. For all he knew it sniffed his sweat, too. Then the capsule door slid shut and acceleration pressed him back against the seat.
There were no windows; like an elevator, the capsule moved people from place to place without ever providing them a glimpse of the rather utilitarian spaces they traversed. He felt the change in momentum as the capsule traversed from Habitat Three’s boom into the Core. There, subject only to the deceleration forces, his stomach flip-flopped as his weight abruptly dropped to what he’d been told it would have been on Mars, not that he had any way to tell.
Momentum shifted again as the capsule moved from the Core along the boom to the Administration Hab, and then he felt the capsule slow and stop, the door opened, and he stepped out into the access station, once more at normal weight.
It was never night in Admin Hab, since no one actually lived there: instead the skyplate gave a featureless white light that replicated a day of high overcast on Earth. The buildings were almost as featureless as the sky: white blocks marked with a few mirrored windows and dark blue doors bearing white text identifying each building’s purpose. Signs on the corners directed newcomers to “Food Production” or “Population Management”—former workplace of Peter’s late father—or any of dozens of other administrative offices, but Art barely glanced at them: although he’d gotten lost in Admin Hab a few times in his early days on the job, now he could have found the studio in his sleep. A couple of times he thought he had.
Three lefts, a right, two blocks and another right, and he stood in front of a dark-blue door like all the others, labeled “Internal Communications.” A bar of light flashed over his face again, and the door swung inward. He strode down the carpeted hallway beyond to the studio at its end. His techies, Teresa and Norman, were running a quick system check, huddled together head to head behind the control board. “’Morning,” Art said and received brief, distracted nods in return. He withdrew back down the hall to the office, and checked his messages. Nothing new from Crew or Council; that meant the morning ‘cast would basically be a repeat of the previous evening’s. Art queued and previewed the necessary video files, ran over his script, and still found himself with twenty-five minutes to kill until the scheduled recording time. There was nothing particularly stopping him from recording early—except for his agreement with Teresa and Norman to always leave them with half an hour alone in the studio to “double-check the equipment.” He figured he knew exactly what equipment they were double-checking, and he wasn’t about to interfere.
So he stayed where he was, his thoughts inevitably falling back into the same track as before.
No, it wasn’t fair for Peter to blame him for his job. It wasn’t as if he had wanted it: he had wanted to join the Mayflower II’s small professional acting troupe, the Relativistic Pilgrims, but there’d been no chance of that after the escapade with the maintenance robot. The artistic director had privately confided to him once at a party that it was a damn shame, since he had “a fine voice.” The director had been hitting on him at the time, though, so he wasn’t sure if he should take the compliment seriously: certainly he’d lost interest once Art had made it clear he was straight.
No, Art’s job was entirely his father’s doing. Samuel F. Stoddard was one of the original Councilors, the ones appointed by the bi-partisan Launch Committee before the Mayflower II had so hastily set out. In his late thirties then, he was now pushing seventy, and he had never lost his almost fanatical loyalty to the Crew, a loyalty engendered in part by the way the Crew, all career military, had fought off an attack, just a week before launch, by a force from who-knew-where on Earth. Crew had died that day to save the ship and its passengers.
In fact, so far as Art knew, not one of the original Councilors objected to how the Crew ran the ship…well, none except for Jonas Woods, the Councilor he’d stumbled over—literally—at Rick’s Place. He’d been appointed as a sop to the Liberty Party, a party so far out of the mainstream of political thought that it was generally seen as a joke—except that it had powerful and wealthy adherents who had made it clear they would withhold their support, both financial and moral, for the building of the ship if he were not included.
Woods had made some fiery speeches in support of individual liberty and responsibility in his early days—Art had covertly watched a couple of them, although he’d only been able to do so because of his relatively unfettered access to the ship’s official records: most Passengers would never have been able to get near those recordings.
But despite that—or maybe because of the fact those early attempts at rabble-rousing had gone nowhere—Jonas Woods had long since sunk into drunkenness and debauchery, and as someone who was quite familiar with drunkenness and debauchery, the fact Art even thought of it in those terms was telling.
Jonas Woods was a joke, his long, rambling, pointless speeches having even given rise to a new description, “pulling a woody,” applied to anyone who talked a long time without saying anything of note. (That it was also something of a double entendre had probably contributed to its popularity.) The days when he was not a joke now lay more than thirty subjective years in the past—ancient history, as far as Art was concerned. And no one else questioned the Crew.
These days, the Crew kept to itself. Despite his job, the only Crew he had ever met personally were Peacekeepers—and even most of the ‘keeps were actually Shipborn, although Crew Shipborn were a different kettle of fish than guys like Pete.
Habitat One was off-limits to everyone but Crew: a modern version of the Forbidden City of ancient China. Even the Prime Councilor did not have access. At its heart, like a spider at the centre of a web, dwelt Captain Harold Nakos, supreme authority of the ship—and a man no one not of the Crew had seen in person since shortly after Launch.
Sometimes Art wondered if the Captain still lived. But he never said that out loud—especially not where his father could hear it.
Norman stuck his head in the door. His face was flushed. “Ready for you now, Art.”
“Thanks, Norm. On my way.” Art gathered his script and went into the studio.
The rest of the day passed in normal routine; he had interviews with three people and spent an hour getting vid of a dozen maintenance robots, supervised by two harried engineers, scuttling around the river recycler in the Habitat Five, the Forest Hab, which had recently been giving the stream a unique colour and odor definitely not in the original specifications.
Art doubted the vid would ever air. Two stories he’d submitted for approval the day before had both been rejected without explanation. Art frowned at the Crewcomm terminal. One story had been about a mysterious fungal infection that had wiped out a whole tankplot of tomatoes, and the other about a half-day loss of computer records at the credit transfer centre after an unexplained power surge. Both were already the talk of the mid-Habs—but he’d had no choice but to ignore them.
He cleared the screen with an angry swipe. Six months ago he had not only been allowed to report on a similar computer malfunction, he had been ordered to. And agricultural die-offs due to disease or tankplot malfunction were nothing new; every other week, it seemed, some fruit or vegetable crop had to be re-started from the genetics bank, while everyone did without. They’d once gone six months without potatoes. Why wasn’t he supposed to say anything about it anymore?
He was reduced, in his evening recording session, to reading practically the same script again, except for two frothy human-interest bits, one on the 85th birthday of the oldest Passenger, a man born just after the inaugural meeting of the Caliphate of the Holy and Oppressed and just before the destruction of Ottawa provided the impetus to Unification, and one on an amateur sculptor who made models of the ship out of scrap metal. Art allowed himself the cynical thought that that could quite plausibly be considered a political comment; he was surprised the Council censors, much less the Crew ones, had allowed it.
The only “hard” news was already ancient history: the publication of the latest lists of women required to attempt conception and the men designated as acceptable fathers. Sure, the semi-annual “Sperm-‘n’-Eggs” list was big news—and had led to the previous night’s energetic and entirely pleasurable, if somewhat exhausting, activities with Treena, and since he was on the male side of the list he was more than happy to continue to draw other eligible women’s attention to it—but still, three days after its release, it wasn’t exactly new “news,” was it?
Norman gave him the traditional thumbs-up as he finished the recording, then closed down the control board and headed off, hand-in-hand with Teresa. Art watched them go and sighed. Teresa was young and sexy and…completely uninterested in him. Unfortunately, even though she was on the current Egg-‘n’-Sperm list, so was Norman, and that suited them both so well Art knew he didn’t stand a chance.
Not that it stopped him from fantasizing every once in a while.
He’d just reached the door when his terminal beeped three times, the high-low-high pattern indicating an incoming voice call. For a moment he considered ignoring it, since he was officially off-duty, but then he decided reluctantly it could be important. He went over to his terminal. “Answer,” he said. “Internal Communications, Stoddard here.”
He expected the screen to light with the image of the caller, but instead it remained stubbornly blank; and the voice that spoke was both distorted and neutered. “Why didn’t you report on the cred-transfer breakdown?”
Art frowned at the blank screen. “Who is this?”
The voice laughed, the distortion giving it an eerie, horror-movie sound. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.”
Art blinked in surprise. He’d have bet he was the only person on the ship who would have gotten that particular ancient pop-culture reference. “What?”
“I’ve got something for you. I know who caused the data loss. Interested?”
Art sighed. Every problem brought the crazies out of the deckplates. “A power surge caused the data loss.”
“But who caused that?”
“Who? Don’t you mean what?”
“No,” the distorted voice said. “I mean who. I can tell you. If you want to know.”
Crazy, he thought again, and Call the ‘keeps, another part of him urged.
But it has to be a hoax, he argued with himself. Do you really want to waste the Peacekeepers’ time on a hoax? Time enough to call after you talk to this nut, if you have to. Play it safe.
“Well?” the voice said impatiently.
“I’m interested,” he said cautiously.
“Good. Take the pod as usual. We’ll meet you.”
“Meet me? Where? There’s no place to—”
“As long as we know, you don’t need to, do you?” The line went dead.
Art stood still for a moment. He could still call the ‘keeps…but then he swore at his own faintheartedness and quickly finished closing up. Five minutes later he stepped out into the ever-bright Hab and made his way to the pod.
Halfway there, the lights went out.
Art stopped dead, shocked. The lights never went out in Admin Hab. Never. It was a given. Had something drastic happened? Have we hit something?
The lights came back on.
He gulped. Coincidence, he thought. It doesn’t have anything to do with that mysterious voice.
He was almost able to convince himself.
The pod trip back to Habitat Three was uneventful, though Art held himself tensely the whole time, waiting for something to happen. When he stepped out into the access station, he took a quick, nervous look around. Again, he saw nothing unusual.
A prank? he thought. Could be…
Peter! Peter or one of his friends. That’s gotta be it.
Convinced he’d solved the mystery, he set off down the street toward his parents’ house.
Well, half-convinced: he couldn’t help taking quick looks around as he walked down the dimly lit street, the skyplate shining with “stars” above him but little else in the way of artificial lighting except for the widely spaced glowing lightposts, casting fuzzy patches of silver on the scuffed ceramic street but making the darkness between them even blacker.
As he approached the park, he quickened his pace. Just beyond the park’s patch of deeper night he could see the more concentrated glow of Neighbourhood One. The park was two hundred metres wide. He was maybe fifty metres into it when all lightposts along the street went out at once.
He stopped in confusion, heart suddenly racing: and an instant later two dark figures leaped out of the shadows.